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Harmony in the Wilderness: A Walk Through Old Economy Village

By Jane Ockershuasen
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXI, Number 1- Winter 1995


Imagine a band of religious zealots creating a community, furnishing households, and planting flowers on western Pennsylvania's frontier with the absolute certainty that the second coming was imminent and that Jesus Christ would walk the garden paths and be made welcome in their homes. That's what George Rapp (1757–1847) and his harmonist followers believed. Such was his confidence in the second coming, that just before his death, the ninety-year-old Rapp confessed, "If I did not know that the dear Lord meant I should present you all to him, I should think my last moments come."

Old Economy Village in Ambridge, Beaver County, is the triumphant final chapter of a story that began in 1785 in Iptengen, near Stuttgart, Germany. Twenty-eight year old George Rapp experienced a religious vision, prompting him to separate from the Lutheran Church, which had discouraged his views. Rapp believed he was a prophet who would lead the select into heaven. Perhaps not a prophet, but a leader he was; within a decade, about thousand followers shared his beliefs.

Striving to interpret the Bible literally, the Rappites saw themselves, like Jesus, wandering in the wilderness. For them, life was a journey towards perfect harmony with themselves, their fellow man, and God. Their guide to the end of time was the New Testament's Book of Revelation. According to Raymond V. Shepherd Jr., historic site administrator of Old Economy Village, the ten-year periods of the first two Harmonist communities—the first in Pennsylvania, from 1805-1815, and the second in the Midwest, from 1815-1824—reflect a passage from Revelation: "into the wilderness…for a time and times, and half a time."

The first decade began in 1804 when Rapp immigrated from Germany to Pennsylvania with six hundred ardent followers, and purchased nine thousand acres in Butler County, north of Pittsburgh. The group formalized their association with articles of agreement, creating the Harmony Society. All property was "held in common" for the common good—as in the early Christian Church. Three years later the Harmonists adopted celibacy as a way of preparing "themselves solely for Christ and His Kingdom." Although the group was made up of both men and women, members had no concern to perpetuate the group because they were certain that Christ would return in 1829, signaling the end of the world as they knew it. Their goal was to be repaired to travel with Christ to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, as prophesied in Revelation.

During its first decade, from 1804 to 1814, the group began shifting from an agrarian and craft economy toward one based on manufacturing, and it created, among others, its own domestic cotton, linen, and wool industry (see "Unlikely Capitalists: Harmonists as Textile Manufacturers" by Daniel B. Reibel and Rachel P. Maines in the spring 1984 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage). With the country embroiled in the War 1812, eliminating dependence on European goods was timely. Through hard work, vision, and flexibility, the Harmonist community became self-sufficient, even though some amenities were purchased from the world "outside."

In 1814, the Harmonists left Pennsylvania and developed thirty thousand acres near the Wabash River in southern Indiana. They introduced the first steam engine in the region to operate their cloth mills. Father Rapp's adopted son Frederick Rapp (1775–1834), co-founder and business agent of the Harmony Society, was elected to the Indiana Territory's legislature. Unlike other pietistic groups, such as the Seventh Day Baptists of Ephrata Cloister, Lancaster County (a complex now administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission), the Harmonists became deeply entrenched in the regional economy and politics. During the Harmonists' stay at New Harmony, Indiana, more that one hundred additional German families immigrated and joined the community the last major influx of followers.

In 1824, six hundred Harmony Society members returned to Pennsylvania to establish their final settlement, a tract of three thousand acres on the Ohio River. Unlike their two previous developments, which they had called Harmony and New Harmony, they christened this third complex Oekonomie, Greek for "divine economy." For them, divinely inspired perfection was realized through the economical use of time, material, and labor. They significantly changed the design of this last village by omitting the town square and instead, clustering the main buildings around the church, the heart of the settlement. Shepherd surmises this was done for convenience; it was effort to keep aging and infirm members close to the community's center. For the third and final time, Frederick Rapp laid out his village in a grid arrangement with brick and clapboard houses lining the streets. In just eighteen months the Harmonists had erected two hundred buildings, many of them built of brick. It was no small feat; when their brick dwellings were constructed, seventy-five percent of the inhabitants of the Pittsburgh region lived in one-room log houses!

Raymond V. Shepherd, Jr. is the consummate historical sleuth, having spent twelve years gathering documentation and painstakingly piecing together the puzzle—made up of more than sixteen thousand objects and artifacts and a staggering collection of three hundred and thirty-five thousand manuscript pages!—this is Old Economy Village. On one occasion a search through the manuscripts yielded an intriguing book which, unfortunately, was missing its title page. Subsequently, Shepherd found a torn fragment of this lost page, identifying it as part of the 1819 addresses of The Philadelphia Society for the Promotion of National Industry. One important piece of the puzzle—discovered on the other end of the Commonwealth at Philadelphia's venerable Historical Society of Pennsylvania—provided a remarkable commentary on the esteem with which the nation's leaders regarded the Harmonists. Thomas Jefferson exhorted listeners, "To be independent for the comfort of life, we must fabricate them ourselves. We must now place the manufacturer by the side of the agriculturist." And such arguments continued unabated.

The Settlement of Harmony, in the western country, was conducted on this plan. This little commonwealth depended wholly on itself for supplies. It had, to use the cogent language of Mr. Jefferson, 'placed the manufacturer beside the agriculturist.' What was the consequence? The settlement made a more rapid progress in wealth and prosperity than any equal body of men in the world at any period of time-more, in one year, than other parts of the United States, which depend on foreign markets for the sale of the produce and the supply of their wants, have done in ten.

As early as the second decade of the nineteenth century, both European and American political and social reformers looked with admiration to the Harmony Society. Much of what they saw nearly two centuries ago is what visitors see today. The eclectic range of Harmonist interest is revealed in the 1827 Natural History and Fine Arts Museum, currently the visitor center. It's the country's second oldest museum building, predated only by the Peale Museum, founded by Charles Wilson Peale (1741-1827), in Philadelphia in 1786. Originally, one section of the Harmonists' museum displayed paintings, while the second featured exhibits devoted to the natural sciences, including botanical specimens that once belonged to the village doctor, J. Christoph Muller. The head of an elk, which roamed the compound's deer park and ate out of Father Rapp's hand, looms over the displays. Ongoing research and restoration is returning the museum to its nineteenth century appearance. Old Economy Village boast a treasure trove of Harmonists objects and artifacts—more than can be seen anywhere else in the world—making it possible for both scholars and visitors to interpret the Harmony Society in its original setting, using original artifacts and objects.

The second floor of the museum building housed the commodious Feast Hall, so situated because Christ's Last Summer with his Apostles was held in an upper chamber. When Old Economy Village's one hundred-by-fifty foot hall was built, it was the largest second floor room in North America. Adoration of Shepherds by Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779), acquired in 1830 for the museum's fine arts collection, still hangs in the great hall. Mengs was widely regarded as the greatest living painter of his day.

After exploring the museum building, visitors can take a guided tour of six original buildings, then follow a self-guided walking tour of the six-acre village, a National Historic Landmark, that takes in six additional buildings and gardens. The surrounding National Register Historic District in Ambridge retains eighty of the one hundred and nineteen Harmonist family houses.

Adjacent to the museum building is the community kitchen, equipped with a dozen original cauldrons that were used to prepare food for festivals celebrated in the Feast Hall. The kitchen's innovatively designed roof is outfitted with trap doors that allow steam to escape; a second raised roof protects these vents from rain and snow.

Tools and benches made by the Harmonists fill the complex's cabinet, clock, and lock shops. The cooper and blacksmith shops are operational, and nineteenth century tools are
used during demonstrations. The granary is currently being converted into an exhibit area to illustrate the industrial side of Harmonist life. The Harmonists stored a vast quantity of grain in three granaries so that they would have food for the long journey the assumed they would take with Christ to Jerusalem after His Second Coming. They also kept a half million dollars in gold and silver secreted in a vault beneath George Rapp's house. This cache, marked "Church Funds" was earmarked to help rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

Subterranean chambers also held other riches. Beneath the brick mechanics building, which houses a variety of shops, is a massive stone-arched wine cellar with its original barrels-one which could hold twelve hundred gallons of one of the Harmonists' famous wines. After the price of wool plummeted in 1820s, Frederick Rapp sought other products with which to diversify the Harmonists' business investments. Although wine making was not as profitable as the textile industry, it did help stabilize the community's economy. Ever farsighted, the Harmonists were probably the first vintners to import Catawba vines into the county.


The Harmony Society took care of its adherents' every conceivable need. Early commercial ventures included tailor, hat, shoe, and print shops. The tailor and shoemaker watched fellow members arrive for weekly worship services. If they clothes seemed shabby or their shoes worn, replacements would be provided. Today, the print shoe features the oldest flat-bed printing press in the country, recently returned to its original location. Beside it is an antique composing desk, made by Harmonists. It is from such desks that the term "upper and lower case" derives-capital letters were stored in the desk's upper cases while lower case letter were placed in lower sections.

An 1827 alphabetical listing of all merchandise sold (with original prices) by the Harmony Store still exists. The store shelves; also reveal the breadth of items sold here. In examining Old Economy VillageGeorge Rapp's papers, Shepherd discovered a revealing passage. Rapp wrote that he would "go to Pittsburgh with the girls and see what kind of taste the world now has to choose the best and the most useful out of this to obtain what is most necessary." At the store villagers purchased "worldly goods" for daily use, such a chine and glass, as well as objects for enrichment and enjoyment, including works of art, musical instruments, and books.

Located behind the store is the village post office, where Shepherd's sleuthing yielded another "find." Two sections of the original wooden mail slots had been separated and were in use elsewhere. Recognizing what they actually were, Shepherd was able to reassemble them and restore the nineteenth century post office. Across the hall from the post office is the doctor's office. It was a mark of the enlightenment and of the economic well-being of the Harmonists that they had a physician among them. Most wilderness settlers did not.

The Baker House is the only members' house open to visitors. The furnishings reflect their simple life style, verified by an inventory taken for a 1847 court case. Storekeeper Romelius L. Baker, the second leader of the Harmony Society, lived here with his wife (as sibling, and not as spouse, or order to adhere to the sect's practice of celibacy) and his biological sister. Hungarian poet Nicholas Lenau spent six months in 1832 in the Baker household. Lenau wrote Don Juan, a poem that Richard Strauss set to music. Perhaps not so coincidentally a poem written by Lord Byron in 1824, also entitled Don Juan, mentions both George Rapp and the Harmony Society.

In the late 1850s, as in many houses of the time, an addition was added to the Baker House so elderly members did not have to climb stairs. Eventually added to many dwelling were family sheds, which served as wood, tool, and drying shed, root cellar, cow shed, and outhouse. (The Harmonists even trained their cows to come to these sheds to be milked, rather than have workers walk to the field). Each household had a garden plot with vegetables, herbs, and flowers. The Bakers' garden today is planted according to a list of plants and herbs compiled by a young schoolgirl, Clara Knodel, in 1825.

Even though the group practiced celibacy much of the time, there were some young residents. A visitor wrote that one child was born each year. The charismatic Rapp was much beloved by young and old, and in an account of his visit in 1826 the Duke of Saxe-Weimar wrote: "Mr. Rapp conducted us into the factory again, and said that the girls had especially requested that visit that I might hear them sing.…The girls sang four pieces, at first sacred, but afterward, by Mr. Rapp's desire, of a gay character." The duke, who published his remarks two years later in two volumes entitled Travels Through North America, went on to remark, "All the workmen, and especially the females, have very healthy complexions and moved me deeply by the warm-hearted friendliness with which they saluted the elder Rapp. I was also much gratified to see vessels containing fresh sweet-scented flowers standing on all the machines. The neatness which universally reigns here is in every respect worth of praise."

Across the cobblestone street from the Baker House is the 1825 George Rapp garden. One of the earliest gardens in the country, it symbolizes the Garden of Eden, complete with apple trees. The statue of Harmony placed in the center of a pavilion—harkening back to Revelation—represents "a woman clothed with the sun." Surrounding this pavilion is a pond, of which the water signifies baptism, while intersecting paths form a cross. Grape vines are reminders of the Last Supper, and the southwest quadrant of the garden represents "the wilderness." An unusual rustic grotto, constructed of rough stones and roofed with thatch, was a common feature of eighteenth century European gardens, but the Harmonists used theirs for meditation. Today's visitors never fail to be surprised when the grotto's craggy exterior yields to an elegant, sophisticated interior decorated in the style of an ancient Greek or Roman temple.

Just off the garden are the houses of George and Frederick Rapp. The Rapps' adjoining residences contain an array of treasures acquired from around the world. European masterpieces punctuate the handsomely wallpapered room, which are decorated with finely crafted furnishings and accessories made in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. It would be only normal for visitors today to wonder how, if the Harmonists lived communally, they justified such lavish appointments for the founders' homes? Perhaps it reflected practice of the landlord living better than his tenants, or the leader better than his followers. As heads of the Harmony Society, both Rapps were often called upon to entertain distinguished visitors and their residences clearly reflected Harmonists' success and prosperity.

The third leader of the Harmonists, Jacob Henrici (1868–1892), served as president of the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad, and a cast iron safe in an office used originally by George Rapp as a study recalls Henrici's years in commerce. The Harmony Society was a major stockholder in the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad until selling its shares to railroad tycoon and financier Cornelius Vanderbilt (1843–1899) in 1892. Adjoining the office is George Rapp's bedroom, which still contains the bed where the founder died. He granddaughter Gertrude's bedroom contains her mandolin, sewing chest, and a small green box filled with crystal candy. Records dated January 16, 1849, indicate that while Society members were in Philadelphia they had purchased "1 Box Candy for Gertrude" because "she had a sweet tooth." Consideration of such small matters as this reflects the loving concern members had for one another in this ideal, harmonious society.

The Harmonists' simple way of life gives no hint of harsh denial or material sacrifice. Instead, they embraced a joyous community effort made with a full heart for the greater glory of God. According to Shepherd, "this was not an experiment, it was a way of life." What they sought was harmony in the wilderness while waiting for the ultimate moment of redemption. What they created was a flourishing industrial center whose shrewd investments eventually included, among others, the building of several railroads and the exploitation of northwestern Pennsylvania's booming oil region. The Harmonists' final home of Economy was, indeed well-named. It represented a cooperative venture founded upon the precepts of devoted enterprise and efficiency. Through this doctrine they had, in the words of historian and author Karl J. R. Arndt, become "immensely wealthy communist capitalists."

The Harmonists did not endure, as they neither proselytized nor multiplied, but while they prospered they forged a religious community that has much to teach visitors today about creating harmony and stability through hard work, dedication, and faith

Old Economy Village is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M., and on Sunday, for Noon to 4:00 P.M. There is a charge for admission. For traveling directions and information about special activities and events, write: Old Economy Village, Fourteenth and Church Streets, Ambridge, Pennsylvania 15003; or telephone (412) 266-4500. Individuals with disabilities who need special assistance or accommodation to visit Old Economy Village should telephone the historic site directly, or the Pennsylvania TDD relay service at (800) 654-5984. [Visit Old Economy Village on the Web at www.oldeconomyvillage.org.]

Other visitors attractions with easy drive of Old Economy Village include the Harmony Society's first settlement, Historic Harmony, in adjacent Butler County. Surrounding the diamond of the picturesque village are several of the original structures erected by the Harmonists between 1805 and 1815. The complex interprets more than two centuries of the region's history, including George Washington's journey from Williamsburg, Virginia, and Fort LeBouef (Erie), the establishment of the Harmony Society a half century later, the subsequent settlement by Mennonites who emigrated from eastern Pennsylvania, and the late nineteenth century oil boom. To obtain additional information, write: Historic Harmony, 218 Mercer Street, Post Office Box 524, Harmony, Pennsylvania 16037; or telephone (412) 452-7341. [Or, visit the Web at www.harmonymuseum.org.]


Jane Ockershausen of Oakmont became a best-selling author by concentrating on the weekend travel market in her nine guidebooks in The One-Day Trip Book series. Her latest, The Pennsylvanian One-Day Trip Book, will be published in mid-1995. She has also written for the National Geographic Traveler, AAA World, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, Washingtonian magazine, Historic Preservation, and Mid-Atlantic Country magazine, among others. The author is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) and the American Society of Journalists and Authors. In 1994, she was elected the SATW's board of directors. She is active on the lecture circuit and has addressed conferences on travel and tourism in Virginia, North Caroline, and Georgia during the past year. She also lecturers at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.


FOR FURTHER READING

Arndt, Karl J.R. George Rapp's Harmony Society, 1785-1847. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1965.

_____. George Rapp's Successors and Material Heirs, 1847-1916. Cranbury, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University, 1971.

Bole, John Archibald. The Harmony Society: A Chapter in German American Culture History. Philadelphia: Americana Germanica Press, 1905.

Duss, John S. The Harmonists: A Personal History. Ambridge, Pa.: The Harmonie Associates, Inc., 1970.

Kring, Hilda Adam. The Harmonists: A Folk-Cultural Approach. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1973.

Reibel, Daniel B. A Guide to Old Economy Village. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1972.